Headstrap

Nandini Purandare

+ Katie Ives

(USA)

This captivating chronicle delves into the untold story of a community that has played a significant role in mountain exploration and climbing in the Himalayas. Situated in northern India, Darjeeling was developed as a colonial retreat by the British in the early 1830s and soon became famous for its tea gardens, attracting locals from around the region, Nepal, and Tibet in search of work. When Darjeeling became the jumping-off point for early Himalayan expeditions, workers from the Sherpa and Bhutia communities soon established themselves as the preferred high-altitude porters, bringing fame, entwined with tales of valour, courage, and sacrifice, to the city. These are some of their stories.

*****

Foreword: The Gift of History

By Katie Ives

May 29, 1953: More than seventy years before the publication of this book, with flags bound to his ice axe and raised against the dark-blue Himalayan sky, Tenzing Norgay posed on a crest of snow while his partner, Edmund Hillary, took the only summit photos. Within days, across the globe, front-page headlines proclaimed the first ascent of Mount Everest, or Chomolungma, as Sherpas call the peak. Countless readers gazed in awe at the picture of a man who, in that moment, stood above all others in the world.

In 1954, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru helped found the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling, India, hoping the school would produce “a thousand Tenzings.” And a year later, when Tenzing Norgay published Man of Everest, with James Ramsey Ullman, he described how much it meant, at last, to have his own autobiography: “Here is my story. Here is myself.”

Already, however, narratives by some Western writers appeared to try to push Tenzing Norgay away from the center of the Everest story, emphasizing Edmund Hillary’s role instead. And expedition leader John Hunt had relegated struggles of high-altitude workers to the margins of his own memoir, Tenzing Norgay observed. “His is an official account,” Tenzing Norgay reflected. “My story is not official. I am not an Englishman but a Sherpa.” For years afterward, while great Sherpa mountaineers continued to arise, few had a chance to represent themselves in print. Often, even the most accomplished appeared in foreign climbers’ books as mere supporting characters—seemingly devoid of personal lives, complex emotions, and aspirations of their own.

Maybe, in that mass-replicated, universal image of the oxygen-masked man in 1953—as Tenzing Norgay’s biographer Ed Douglas suggested—the particulars got lost. Or perhaps colonialist attitudes remained too embedded in much of the international media and climbing communities for Sherpas and other Indigenous climbers to become frequent, well-rounded protagonists in tales other than that of the first ascent of the world’s highest peak.

But there have long been innumerable, lesser-known stories, preserved in a few shelves’ worth of books, but more often passed on orally from generation to generation in mountain villages and city neighborhoods—echoes, at times, of the vanished and the dead whose experiences reverberate through the lives and lore of loved ones and descendants.

A compilation of such oral histories—collected by Nandini Purandare and Deepa Balsavar, and narrated by Dorjee Lhatoo and other Darjeeling Sherpas—Headstrap features a body of adventure literature far more significant than the endless procession of I-Survived-the-Death-Zone and How-Climbing-the-Corporate-Ladder-Can-Be-Your-Personal-Everest accounts by Sherpas’ Western clients that crowd bestseller lists and propel inspirational speaking tours. Here, instead, we read of young Sherpas who ran away from Khumbu during the early twentieth century, insulating their feet with bags of straw to cross snowy passes, chasing dreams of new opportunities in the booming hill station of Darjeeling. We follow their journeys through cold, high realms of avalanches and icefalls, intense winds and thin air, where they risked their lives as expedition workers—sometimes gaining hard-won futures of expanded choices for their children. Other times, losing their fingers, their toes, or even their lives.

We learn of people whose roles have all too often been ignored, including Sherpa women who bore loads “as heavy as carrying a man,” as Ani Daku Sherpa, a 1953 Everest expedition worker, recounted. We are reminded of heroic acts off the mountains as well as on: of how Ang Tsering struggled down Nanga Parbat in a blizzard in 1934, snow blind and frostbitten, seeking help for his doomed companions. “For nine days I ate only ice,” his family recalled him saying. And of how, in the aftermath, he took care of more and more children of Sherpas who perished in the mountains: “These are all my children,” he told Dorjee Lhatoo. We hear of the fates of expedition staff who fell into poverty, rejected for work because of injury or age—such as Lewa Sherpa, who lost his toes to frostbite during the first ascent of Kamet and who later threw his Tiger Badge down a hill, protesting an industry that valued him so little and discarded him so easily.

“It is high time,” Purandare and Balsavar write, “these stories are told.” This collection—along with other books by or about expedition workers—represents far more than a crucial way of filling gaps in the historical record. It is also a call to action for more writers, editors, publishers, and readers to join a larger reckoning and reenvisioning of what mountain literature has been, should have been, and might yet become.

Such books have a particular resonance now, as the first winter ascent of K2 by a nearly all-Sherpa team once more expands the audience for their achievements, building momentum toward equity that must be supported well enough, this time, to endure. During an era when the rise of AI-generated content seems to threaten the future of literature, Headstrap reminds us of the importance of human storytellers and story collectors: the value of sifting for buried lore through tangible, nondigitized things—old journals, mementos, and artifacts; of traveling to speak with people in their homes; of listening to multiple voices weave in and out of each other, creating overstories and understories that offer deeper layers of perspective and truth.

While fights erupt over the teaching of history in the US and other parts of the world, this book provides yet more evidence that more inclusive accounts are also more accurate ones, and that issues of injustice cannot be resolved if their past and present-day realities are censored or suppressed. “A mountain is a metaphor,” wrote the anthropologist Pasang Yangjee Sherpa in a 2021 essay for Alpinist that seems more urgent than ever. “To imagine a future of alpinism is to imagine the kind of future we, collectively as global citizens, want to create on and off the mountain. The gift of history offers us an advantage. The knowledge we have inherited orally or textually shows us what to leave behind and what to take forward. Each of us has a choice to make. I dream of a future that is just and fair. What would that be like?”

What will you, readers, do with this gift of history?

*****

Introduction: Gateway to Heaven

By Nandini Purandare and Deepa Balsavar

Between 40 and 50 million years ago, the Indian landmass collided with the Eurasian plate to give rise to a series of crumples and folds known today as the Himalaya. This massive mountain range extends in a 2,400-kilometer-long arc that separates the Indian subcontinent from the rest of Asia. The effects of that collision have shaped the lives of all the nations that developed in the region. This book features three of them: India, Nepal, and Tibet.

Our story concerns a community of people who migrated hundreds of years ago over the high mountain passes from windswept Tibet into Nepal, a small, landlocked country nestled in the lap of the highest peaks in the world. There they lived at altitudes above 3,000 meters, farming and herding until a new way of life beckoned, occasioned by the very range in which they dwelled. This second migration brought some of them over the lower ranges of the Himalaya into India, to Darjeeling. Darjeeling was a gateway in two senses: north from British India for early expeditions in the Himalaya and south from Tibet and Nepal for tribespeople seeking employment and a better life.

This small town lies in the foothills of the Himalaya, east of Nepal in the Indian state of West Bengal. The peaks of Kangchenjunga (8,586 meters), the third-highest mountain in the world, hover on the horizon to the northwest. On our first visit, we stayed at Dekeling Hotel in the center of town. Through the large plate-glass windows of the hotel’s Lunar Restaurant, above the jumble of broken wires and antennae, we could see Kangchenjunga, the golden mountain and keeper of this chaotic town, suspended in the distance. In Tibetan, the name Kangchenjunga means Five Treasures of the Snow, and when the sun rises, the mountain peaks glow with a fiery light. Over the next few years, there would be several defining points in our journey, but the first one occurred on the very day of our arrival. We had just finished breakfast when the hotel owner rushed in all atwitter. The Clint Eastwood of Darjeeling had arrived to meet us, she whispered excitedly.

Sitting in the small hotel lobby was Dorjee Lhatoo, a dapper Sherpa wearing polished knee-length leather boots, a leather jacket, blue jeans, and a pink-and-white checked shirt. Wrapped around his neck was a silk cravat. Whatever we were expecting, it wasn’t this. From that very first meeting, this famed mountaineer shared with us his store of memories and his immense knowledge about his community. We would spend many hours over the next few years in his wood-paneled living room, as he corrected our pronunciations, explained relationships, and wove an intricate historical tapestry of relived conversations and events. But all that was yet to come. On this first meeting, leaving his Bullet motorcycle at the hotel, Lhatoo took us on a long walk through Darjeeling. First we strolled down Mall Road, with its cafés and tourist shops, then along a beautiful path lined with deodar—the Himalayan cedar—and past the zoo and the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI), India’s first climbing school, which opened in 1954. This route brought us to the rear entrance of the institute, where the prominent Sherpa Nawang Gombu had built his home. He had passed away exactly a year prior, and we had come to observe the one-year anniversary of his death.

 

ALMOST EVERY SHERPA HOUSE IN Darjeeling has a prayer room, as is the custom in Buddhist households. Even small, one-room homes devote an entire wall to the altar. In Nawang Gombu’s house, the large prayer room had a table covered with butter lamps at the entrance and woollen rugs covering the floor. Each wall had thangkas, intricately painted Buddhist wall hangings garlanded with white silk scarves called khadas, while brightly painted wooden cabinets held an array of religious photos and figurines. Above the altar, which took up the back wall of the room, hung canopies of ruffled yellow silk.

A dozen monks sat opposite each other, clad in sleeveless yellow silk shirts and maroon robes, all playing instruments. Cymbals, two great telescoping Tsangdoh trumpets, short trumpets, drums, and hand bells boomed, shrilled, and clashed, rhythmically accompanying the rise and fall of the Buddhist prayers. Each monk had a teacup in front of him, which was constantly replenished by the young ladies of the house. Also on offer were Coke, Sprite, and water. Earlier the younger monks had crafted colorful figurines called tormas made of oil, flour, and food coloring that would be offered to the gods, then fed to animals.

Downstairs, away from the solemnity of the rituals, the kitchen teemed with women stirring pots of tea, shaping momos, boiling rice, and chopping vegetables. This ceremony continued nonstop for a week, during which time the monks and visitors had to be continually refreshed and fed. The mood was what—happy, sad, nostalgic? It felt a bit like all of these. Above all, it was a celebration of Nawang Gombu’s life.

Part of the ritual, Lhatoo told us, involved religious appeasement, but mostly it was a reason for the community to gather and keep alive age-old traditions and bonds. And we were here as invited voyeurs.

We met Gombu’s wife, Sita la (la has several meanings, but in this context, it is used as a title of respect for women). She was busy with the cooking and serving for the celebration, but she stopped to smile warmly and implored us to eat. We met her brother Phursumba, surely the tallest and lankiest Sherpa in Darjeeling. He had lived in America most of his life, teaching climbing at Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. in Washington State. In 1967, he had gone on a National Geographic trans-Arctic expedition to the North Pole. “I thought I was there to climb a mountain,” he chuckled.

After the expedition, he stopped in Seattle for a night and stayed on for forty-six years. He had come to Darjeeling for the ceremony, and would return permanently in 2013 to carry on the community work started by his dearest friend and brother-in-law, Gombu daju (daju is a term of respect that translates as “older brother”). And we met Nawang Gombu’s daughters—Rita, a mountaineer herself; Yangdu; and Ongmu—educated, working women living in Delhi.

“When you read books,” said Ongmu, “they romanticize the entire Sherpa concept. For them climbing was a livelihood, pretty much a way of life. During my dad’s funeral, Norbu—Tenzing’s older son—and I were talking. We thought what was really amazing was that Tenzing Norgay, as well as my dad, did not know how to read or write. They grew up learning Tibetan. Then they came to Nepal and learned Nepalese, and then came to Darjeeling and then travelled abroad! This was all in one generation, not two.” She reflected on how that decision affected her life: “We always talk about it. My dad had a choice to put us either into a Nepalese medium school or an English medium school [‘medium’ refers to the language of instruction in school, i.e., whether subjects are taught in Nepalese or English]. The reality is if we had gone to a Nepali school, we would still have been in Darjeeling.”

In the garden sat a row of middle-aged Sherpa women (Sherpanis), most of whom were dressed in traditional clothes: a long inner shirt called wan ju, covered by a wraparound robe, or baku. A couple of them were smoking surreptitiously. Some had local government jobs, some had shops in the market, and others volunteered with regional political parties or at the Sherpa monastery. Almost none of them were stay-at-home women.

Chatting with them was another Sherpa who would soon guide us to people and take a keen interest in our work. Phurtemba Sherpa, a loved and respected local leader, had made it his mission after retiring from the army to help Sherpas get the recognition they deserve. Though not a climber he took greater pride in the achievements of Sherpa climbers than many did themselves. From petitioning for a Bharat Ratna—the highest civilian honor bestowed by the Republic of India—for Tenzing Norgay to getting scholarships for Sherpa children, to wanting to start Sherpa language classes, to working tirelessly at the local Buddhist temple (the gompa), this spirited man works ceaselessly on behalf of his people. He soon became another dear friend.

On our third day in Darjeeling, Lhatoo took us to the locality called Toong Soong. More than a century ago, Toong Soong was where the Sherpas came and settled on its thickly forested hillsides. Today, it is overcrowded, with narrow roads and rickety houses piled precariously on bare slopes.

Lhatoo told us, “I heard from the early Sherpas that Toong Soong is a corruption of Thung Soom. Thung is shankh [a conch shell]. There were three prominent rock features on this road. One is still there. From Chong Rinzing’s house”—Chong Rinzing was Lhatoo’s friend and the son of a prominent Sherpa climber—“if you look up, there’s a big rock. We used to do our rappelling on that. That looks like a shell. There was one rock close to the Sherpa gompa. And there was one where the three roads meet. They have blown that up and built a big house there. Soom in Tibetan is ‘three.’ Thung Soom—Three Shells. The old Sherpas still say, ‘Thung Soom.’”

When we interviewed Chong Rinzing at his home, we could indeed see the big rock. Rinzing’s family had migrated to Darjeeling in 1947 when he was a young boy. He remembered being caught up in the excitement of Indian Independence and waving the Indian tricolor with Dorjee Lhatoo, the first friend he made.

The middle lane in Toong Soong is called Tenzing Norgay Road. Past the Sherpa gompa, the packed houses have a little more breathing room, and we soon came upon a flight of stairs that led down to an open courtyard and a lovely green cottage. The sign on the cottage wall read “Ang Tsering Sherpa, H. No. 10/1, Ganesh Gram, Toong Soong Basty, Darjeeling.” We didn’t yet know it, but this house would soon become our favorite place to put our feet up whenever we came to Darjeeling.

On the way to Ang Tsering’s cottage is the home of PemPem, Tenzing Norgay’s daughter, and her husband, Thendup. We rang their doorbell one afternoon and went down stone steps to a small, flower-filled garden surrounded by various rooms. Inside, the house was like a burrow. With its several dark, interconnected rooms built more than a century ago, it was like entering the past.

We introduced ourselves and asked PemPem, “So is this Tenzing Norgay’s house?”

“Actually, this is Thendup’s house,” she replied. “We used to live just below this house when my father came to Darjeeling. Thendup’s parents were our landlords, and his grandparents built this house in 1902.” PemPem said that both Thendup and his father were born in that home. “Thendup’s grandfather owned half of Toong Soong, but everything is now sold,” she continued. “It was the time when the Sherpas were coming—they used to live all around this house.”

And on yet another sunny afternoon, at the central meeting place in town called Chowrasta, we met 101-year-old Lhakpa Diki, Dorjee Lhatoo’s aunt. Her husband had been a celebrated porter, and she was a load bearer when young. Her thoughts were garbled, but her eyes shone as she remembered fragments of her life.

Some days later, we made a trip north from Darjeeling to the town of Gangtok in the state of Sikkim to meet another woman porter. Ani (aunt) Daku was in her nineties, but remained nostalgic about her climbing years. As the days drew to an end on our first visit, the prayer flag at Nawang Gombu’s house was hoisted after the one-year mourning period. We took a high road to the house known as Ghang-la, built for Tenzing after his historic Everest ascent. (Ghang-la was both the name of Tenzing’s father and that of the village the family came from.) We met and interviewed Jamling, Tenzing Norgay’s eldest son, who has a private museum dedicated to his illustrious father. We also took a low road down another hillside to visit Nawang Topgay, the last surviving Sherpa Tiger (a term used to honor the most accomplished Sherpa climbers), in his meager dwelling.

Our meetings had been interspersed with visits to the gompa, the Oxford bookshop for its wonderful selection of mountaineering books, and the Das Studio, where photographs of early climbers still hang on the walls. We met many more people—Sherpas and their friends—and took copious notes and recordings. We had slurped Tibetan noodle soup (thukpa) in the local eateries, drunk many cups of Darjeeling tea, and eaten more than one momo. It was not going to be easy to leave this town.

On our way to the airport, we made one last stop at the house of Tenzing Tharkay, son of legendary climber Ang Tharkay. We were accompanied by Dorjee Lhatoo, whose stories swallowed up the miles.

These are just some of the remarkable people we met on that first trip to Darjeeling. Over the years that followed, we met many more amazing characters across India and abroad as we chased anyone who had anything to tell us. From Kolkata, Bengaluru, Delhi, Nagpur, Dehradun, and Mumbai in India, to England, France, and America, people were generous with their time and help. Eventually, we also met the current Sherpa climbers of Darjeeling, who had remained elusive to us, in the newer Sherpa enclaves of Alubari and Ghoom and at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute.

Many of the storytellers we met have passed away since this project began: Lhakpa Diki, the spirited centenarian, whose face we wanted to capture again and again; Nawang Topgay, nephew of Tenzing Norgay and a celebrated yet misunderstood Sherpa; Chong Rinzing, who featured in so many of Dorjee Lhatoo’s childhood remembrances; Tenzing Tharkay, aesthete, gentleman, and chef, who cooked memorable Japanese meals; Sangye Sherpa, who died with dreams unfulfilled; Pemba Sherpa, victim of a tragic mountaineering accident; Colonel Narendra “Bull” Kumar, who tackled all problems head-on; Nalni Jayal and Gurdial Singh, friends and mountaineers who were so intricately linked with early mountaineering; Chanchal Mitra, pioneer climber from Kolkata; Daku Sherpa, who at ninety-two could teach the world about living life on your own terms; Colonel Paul, whose thoughts dwelt so much on the past; and PemPem, defender of her father, Tenzing Norgay, until the very end. It is high time these stories are told.

Excerpted from Headstrap: Legends and Lore from the Climbing Sherpas of Darjeeling by Nandini Purandare and Deepa Balsavar (April 2024). Published by Mountaineers Books. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. Available from Mountaineers Books

Nandini Purandare

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.

Nandini Purandare is editor of the internationally renowned Himalayan Journal. As a writer and editor for the Avehi-Abacus Project, she has developed educational materials for public schools across India. With a background in economics, Purandare has consulted for various organizations and research centers and is an enthusiastic trekker and avid reader of mountain literature. She, along with co-author Deepa Balsavar, founded the Sherpa Project to record oral histories through in-depth interviews of members of the climbing Sherpa community.

Katie Ives

is a

Contributor for Panorama.

A graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Banff Mountain and Wilderness Writing Program, Katie Ives has written for many publications, including The New York Times, Outside, Atlas Obscura, LitHub, Adventure Journal, Mountain Gazette and The Rumpus. Her short stories have been included in two anthologies, Rock, Paper, Fire: The Best of Mountain and Wilderness Writing (Banff Centre Press, 2013) and Waymaking: An Anthology of Women’s Adventure Writing, Poetry and Art (Vertebrate Publishing, 2018). Her articles have made the Notables lists for both Best American Sports Writing and Best American Essays. She was an editor at Alpinist for nearly eighteen years, and the editor-in-chief of the magazine for more than a decade. In 2016, she received the H. Adams Carter Literary Award from the American Alpine Club. And in 2022, her first book, Imaginary Peaks: The Riesenstein Hoax and Other Mountain Dreams (Mountaineers Books, 2021) received a Special Jury Mention at the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival. She lives in Boulder, Colorado.

Loading...

Pin It on Pinterest